Having skipped dinner to save room for party food, you’re a little light-headed from low blood sugar. A friend rushes you with a hug and shoves a glass of red wine in your hand, and from the first sip you know it’s a blend.
It’s now wall-to-wall people and you’re straining to hear the conversation. You’ve only been here 20 minutes, but because of stimulation overload, you’re ready to call it a night.
If this scenario sounds familiar, welcome to the world of the “highly sensitive person.”
Highly sensitive people, or HSPs, are very attuned to their environment – sights, sounds, smells, textures, even other people’s emotions.
San Francisco psychologist and researcher Elaine Aron discovered that what Carl Jung called “innate sensitivity” is an inherited personality trait found in 15 to 20 percent of the population.
Aron’s research was prompted by her own sensitivity. In the early 1990s, she and her husband, a research scientist, began compiling data for her best-selling book “The Highly Sensitive Person” (Broadway Books, 1997).
They discovered that HSPs are conscientious, detail-oriented and aware of subtleties. While they’re hyper-aware of their environment, more sensitive to pain and tend toward introversion, highly sensitive people are also deeply moved by art and music and have very meaningful relationships.
“HSPers are very highly tuned. They have a louder feedback system and because of this, it’s hard for them to be in their bodies,” says Patricia Yacker, a licensed Spokane mental health counselor who specializes in treating highly sensitive people.
But this discomfort, she believes, fosters empathy for fellow human beings: “Highly sensitive people are very compassionate and giving.”
Like Aron, Yacker understands the world of the highly sensitive person because she’s one herself.
“The best thing about being an HSP is that I am tuned in to life and what the people around me are feeling and needing,” she says. “But for years that was also the worst.”
Yacker became aware of her own sensitivity when she was in her 20s, but at that time, the trait wasn’t recognized.
“I felt embarrassed and ashamed because I had been such an extroverted performer up until then,” she says. “I became anxious and depressed and was unable to keep up with the expectations I had for myself.”
Aron says that being a highly sensitive person has its ups and downs.
“I’ve had to cut way down on my activities,” she says. Her first priority is staying centered, which she does through a regular practice of meditation.
Still, says Aron, “I’ve come to appreciate the trait a great deal.”
She says she has spent much of her life trying to expand her awareness of all things. Being highly sensitive has fostered a desire to “feel, sense and know as much as possible.”
Highly sensitive people can be easily overwhelmed. They perform less well when they are watched, socialize less (although 30 percent of HSPs are extroverted) and often prefer to process experiences alone and quietly.
They work best when conditions are quiet and calm, but Aron says they are known for performing well in emergencies.
More than anything, she wants highly sensitive people to know that “your trait is normal.”
And it’s not particular to humans. Research shows that it’s found in fruit flies, dogs, cats, horses and primates.
All animals, humans included, feel best when they are neither over- or under-aroused. Under-arousal leads to boredom, restlessness and impatience. Over-arousal by loud noises, strong smells, itchy fabrics and social pressures, for example, can lead more easily to anxiety and depression.
Highly sensitive people also are prone to chemical sensitivities, allergies and chronic fatigue, Yacker says.
But Aron avoids using words like “fragile” when speaking of highly sensitive people because “it leaves out the positive side. HSPs are affected by environment in both positive and negative ways.”
In a negative environment, she says, they will experience more anxiety and depression, but in a positive environment, they flourish.
Being highly sensitive encompasses a variety of traits, but underlying them all is a tendency to look before leaping – to hesitate before acting and deeply process one’s surroundings and situation.
Over the years, Yacker has adjusted her lifestyle to fit the needs of her sensitivities. Initially, her social life took a hit.
“I haven’t been to a movie in more than 20 years,” she says, because they are just too much visual and audio stimulation.
“But slowly I learned what I could tolerate, leaving room for things like attending church. Even though that could be over-stimulating, the social and spiritual benefits are important.”
Being a highly sensitive person has helped, Yacker says, to understand and counsel her clients. She views the trait as a sort of spiritual assignment that provides unique feedback.
“Once I help them see their HSP, a lot of the self-degradation fades,” she says.
In learning to navigate in their world, highly sensitive people have their own special brand of survival tools.
“You need people in your life who will recognize and support your sensitivity,” says Yacker.
Her husband, Marty, likens his wife to a Maserati: a high-performance vehicle that, when in tune, runs great, but when out of tune, quickly breaks down.
“You either need to be a good mechanic or have one living with you,” she says.
While highly sensitive people might struggle to curb their sensitivity, says Yacker, “Life is what it is, and most of it cannot be changed.
“The issue is not that HSPs are sensitive,” she says. It’s the fear and accompanying reactions that create problems.
Yacker says it’s her job to help build an awareness of what’s going on internally, “so they can change their responses.”
Her counseling includes mindfulness practices that help clients increase their awareness of both their feelings and needs.
“I guide them in a meditation that makes them feel safe in their bodies while observing a perceived threat,” she says.
These exercises cultivate compassion, she says, helping them to release fears and become more self-forgiving: “I teach them how to relax so they can call on their internal wisdom and intuition.”
Highly sensitive people need to be patient with their minds and bodies. Yacker emphasizes good self-care and acceptance.
“HSPs are picking up on what is life-supporting – in situations and in people – and what’s not,” she says. “It’s essential they learn self-care and self-love.”
In so doing, she says, “They are empowered to support life in themselves, others and the planet.”